Encouraging Words
Suggestions from the Manuscript Development Program

Amy Benson Brown, Director, The Manuscript Development Program,
Office of the Provost


Vol. 9 No. 1
September 2006

Return to Contents


Who's Afraid of the IRB?
How the Institutional Review Board stepped into the research culture gap

Bolstering the Infrastructure

"If you look at the exponential growth in the amount of research dollars at Emory in 1990 as compared to 2005–06, it’s clear that we hadn’t invested in the overall infrastructure to keep pace with the volume of research and research dollars flowing through the institution."

"The granting organizations aren’t stupid. They’re going to go where they think can get a trial done fastest. If we’re slow, they’ll know about it and go somewhere else. When people approach me about doing clinical trials, they ask me how fast our IRB is. It’s one of their first questions."


Biography Redux
New interest in an old standard


Keeping Cultural DNA Intact
The Italian Virtual Class Chiavi di lettura method


Mixed Messages
Ten years after the Emory Commission on Teaching


Encouraging Words
Suggestions from the Manuscript Development Program

Reading to help you write


Emory Indicators


Endnotes

Though most academics spend a good deal of time writing articles or books to disseminate their research, I have encountered few who think of themselves as “real” writers. Maybe more should.

With the rise of multidisciplinary work, more scholars now speak from several disciplines to readers in even more fields. Effective communication with such heterogeneous audiences demands considerable attention to rhetoric. Furthermore, book manuscripts that can capture a wider audience are attractive to many scholarly presses due to changes in that industry in recent decades. On a larger scale, the cogent expression of complex research probably has never been more vital in clarifying the value of universities. The cultivation of fluent and persuasive academic authors, however, is often left to chance and individual inclination.

For the past few years, my editorial colleague, Elizabeth Gallu, and I have worked with Emory faculty interested in reaching somewhat broader audiences and on other issues in scholarly publishing. Though each manuscript poses different challenges, some straightforward strategies have emerged that many writers find useful. What follows is an overview of a few strategies that emphasize writing as a craft rather than a necessary evil.

Whether they are just beginning to draft or working on revisions, many faculty members find it helpful to revisit two or three academic books that represent the kind of writing they admire. Rereading them, focusing not on what they argue but how they are built from the macro to the micro level reveals choices made in the design of the work. This shift in perspective is a little like looking at an x-ray of a body. You notice the skeleton, the basic method of organization, and the tone and type of language the author uses to support that skeleton. You see the structure that makes the movement of ideas possible by noting where in chapters or paragraphs key ideas appear.

And you become aware that there must be some rhetorical connective tissue that holds the argument together, showing the relationship between one chapter and the next or between sections within a chapter.

Having models in mind cannot help, though, if you have almost no time to practice this aspect of the profession. Robert Boice, a psychologist who has studied how scholars succeed or fail as writers, offers a dictum that I use as a mantra for my own writing process: “Start before you’re ready. Stop before you’re done.” This means ignoring the demons of perfectionism that urge us to read yet another article or have the argument fully outlined before setting fingertips to keyboard. “Stopping before you’re done” means ending each writing session before exhaustion sets in, ideally before articulation fades and frustration spikes.

This approach assumes a schedule of regular writing sessions that Boice argues may be relatively brief. We can stop before we’re done because we know we will return soon and be more productive when fresh. Between the guilt of endlessly postponed writing and the (seemingly) endless rush toward deadline, there is a middle way. With writing, as with life, it is generally a happier path. Writers may, however, have to make some people a little unhappy by carving out a few sacred hours a week. Just as classes and service committee meetings stubbornly recur on the calendar, successful authors schedule “unbudgeable” writing sessions, even if they are only an hour long.

But what of the sabbatical or summer break that may be shimmering like an oasis of writing time on the horizon? Structuring a work schedule with times for fun or rest, some regular social contact to avoid isolation, and some accountability for accomplishing realistic goals can make those breaks more rewarding. Reading one of Robert Boice’s books on scholarly writing would be a good warm-up for the sabbatical, as would any of the books of William Germano or Beth Luey.

Beyond productivity and process, many authors are interested in enhancing the coherence, persuasiveness, and clarity of their manuscripts. The following editorial practices apply to these sorts of issues.

To test the organization or coherence of a chapter draft, you might map its ideas. This means simply making a list of the ideas, briefly summarized, of each section. If the chapter has subsections, make a list of the subheads and look at them separately and in the context of the chapter’s “map.” Do the subheads follow a logical pattern and show how the pieces of the chapter fit together? The map makes it easier to see recurrences of points or any unexplained leaps between points. Looking at the underlying structure of the material helps writers see the “forest” more than the “trees” and decide whether they need to reorganize their argument. Sometimes moving passages around or cutting them is less necessary than inserting transitions between sections. Why does B necessarily follow A? Overtly articulating the relationship between sections or chapters both makes the argument more clear and persuasive and boosts the work’s general coherence.

For scholars who expect their work to be of interest to readers trained in diverse fields, I
recommend spending a little time investigating the conventions of communication in those fields. Jotting down a list of all the disciplines that different parts of the audience may belong to and posting that list somewhere in the writing space also is a good idea. Transitions again deserve attention and careful articulation. Disciplinary assumptions often operate at junctures within an argument. To the initiated, the progression from one part of an argument to another usually is obvious; to those with different training, the logic behind the argument’s progression may be opaque. Planting clear “sign-posts” in the text to emphasize turns along the argument’s path helps
all readers feel welcome to travel through the work. Weeding out discipline-specific terms or briefly glossing them is an act of self-preservation as well as kindness. Sometimes interdisciplinary
scholars can even tap a colleague (who does not completely share the writer’s background but does belong to one of the fields in the target audience) to read a draft and flag puzzling terms or passages.

Each of these recommendations focuses on one issue at a time. Making multiple passes through a manuscript, paying attention only to one rhetorical concern each time, may seem counterintuitive or inefficient. I have found it, though, easier and more effective than trying to “perfect” each page before moving to the next. In that spirit, I offer a few strategies for line editing.

Near the end of the revision process is a good time to consider the ease of reading the prose (focusing on this early in the process tends to stifle expression and stall progress). Anyone can do this exercise with a chapter. Scan the whole thing quickly and highlight all sentences four lines or longer. Long sentences sometimes work wonderfully and vary the pace of prose, but superfluous modifiers mire ideas. Are multiple clauses within a long sentence truly helping make your point, or are they distracting readers from what you most wish them to see?

Make another pass looking just at verbs; they fuel prose. Passive constructions sometimes suit your purpose, but, as many have observed, academics tend to overuse them. Likewise beware of overuse of the various forms of the verb “to be.” They lounge around scholarly prose like textual couch potatoes, standing in for a more precise—and therefore more meaningful—naming of the action.

Finally, consider reading critical sections aloud, listening for rhythm. Occasional short sentences give readers a chance to pause and check their understanding. Effective writers often follow a long explanation of a complex point with a short restatement of the basic idea in plain language.
To achieve a similar effect, you might mix in an occasional metaphor or analogy for an
intricate process you have elaborated. It’s like the handshake that seals the deal.